I love the North Carolina State Fair. For more than 25 years I have been heading to West Raleigh each October to enjoy a great multi-sensory experience. My wife, Mary, and our eight children are also fair junkies; they often count down the days to the fair’s opening with anticipation and excitement.
I have also written dozens of newspaper stories and columns about the fair through the years, writing about farmers, artists, bakers, gardeners and crafts people – among others – who have also made the fair part of their lives. In Garner, we are blessed to live just 15 or 20 minutes away from the fairgrounds (although the trip can be far longer on State Fair weekends), and many Garner folks enjoy entering their homemade artwork and other creations into the myriad fair competitions with hopes of garnering a blue ribbon and some small cash prizes.
The greater Garner community is omnipresent at the fair. While this year didn’t match recent years when Garner had two celebrities at the fair – reigning Miss North Carolina Arlie Honeycutt and American Idol winner Scottie McCreery – there’s still plenty to be excited about coming from Garner.
Garner has its State Fair “perennials.” Garner native Mary Jo Stephenson, and her friend Tammy Kennedy (and their families) have amassed more ribbons than they can remember for all kinds of contest entries. The two have combined their green thumbs with their exquisite artistic abilities to produce some amazingly beautiful entries for the Flower and Garden Show. This year, Kennedy’s Fairy Garden entry won a first-place blue ribbon and Best in Class Award. In past years, Kennedy’s garden entries have required months of planning and preparation, including coming to the fairgrounds months before the fair begins.
Utilizing recycled materials for her props, Stephenson brings a unique and exquisite touch to the fair gardens. For example, she uses old lamps to make beautiful bird feeders. Seen under the moonlight at the fair, Stephenson’s creations are enchanting.
“All the things I made were saved from the landfill,” Stephenson said. “I just like to repurpose anything to keep it out of the landfill.”
Kennedy, who helps coordinate the Garner Grows Community Farm Garden on Highway 70 near Kroger, organized the effort to enter a bunch of the garden’s vegetables, fruit, flowers, grasses and herbs in various fair contests. The result was a fistful of ribbons and more than $100 in prize money, which will go back into the garden’s coffers to fund future projects.
Pete Kennedy, Tammy’s husband, also took home a first-place blue ribbon for his “Green Man” sculpture entry in the “Garden Art Over 30 Inches” category.
When you enter the fair’s Expo Center (this is a must-see fair stop), you may feel like you’re entering into an alternate universe where the Jolly Green Giant is the mayor. There is a row of gargantuan pumpkins as long as the produce aisle in the grocery store, with the end cap featuring a state record 1,404.5-pound pumpkin. (I would like to see how they got that thing to – and into – the fair!) Garner farmer Todd Dawson is also a regular in the Land of the Giants building. His red ribbon, second-place watermelon weighed in at 231.5 pounds, big enough to give 1,000 people a slice of the juicy fruit. In 2011, Dawson grew the state record heaviest watermelon at 282.2 pounds.
The fair is also a place of politics, ideas and emotions. At “The Peace Booth” at the fair, you can find former Garner Senior High School Principal, Wayne Bare and his wife Anita coordinating volunteers to staff a booth that has been a fair mainstay since 1951. Bare has been a leader with the Wake County branch of the United Nations Association, which helps staff the booth each year.
Of course, the fair is also a place for fun, overeating and exhilaration. I confess that I stay away from the two things most fair visitors enjoy most – fatty foods and the midway rides. About the time I turned 40 my body’s equilibrium changed, and thrill rides were no longer appealing, and besides an occasional taste (Last year, N&O food writer Andrea Weigl gave me a bite of her Krispy Kreme burger) I steer clear of the 1,000-plus calorie fair foods. Still, this boy from the Bronx, NY can spend all day at the fair just taking in the sights and exhibits – never getting bored.
Kennedy says the work she does combines her love of art with her love of the natural world.
“I just marvel at how amazing nature is,” Kennedy told me. “It’s a way for me to stretch my mind and my creativity. It’s a very spiritual thing for me. I feel closer to the Source, the Divine.”
OK, I know, the fair is not for everyone. This week I asked Tommy Packer, a friend at St. Mary, Mother of the Church Catholic Church on Vandora Springs Rd., if he ever goes to the fair.
“I went once 25 years ago, and it will be 25 years before I go back again,” Packer said.
I’ll be looking for Tommy in October, 2039!